Editor's note: The legendary George Klein passed away Tuesday night. Here's Randy's Haspel's tribute from last August. It seems a fitting farewell — BV
One of my favorite shows on local television is Memphis Sounds with George Klein on the Library Station, WYPL Channel 18. The "Geeker (pronounced jeeker) in Your Speaker" does pretty much what he always has: interview artists and musicians, both famous and non-famous, that figure into this thing we call Memphis music.
The only problem is that for the last several weeks, George has taken a leave of absence because of health reasons. His substitutes, Leon Griffin, Dave Brown, and William Bell, have all been great, but nobody does it like GK. Now in its 12th year, George has interviewed everyone from Isaac Hayes to Justin Timberlake, along with scores of other musicians, while treating disc jockeys from small stations with the same respect reserved for superstars. His encyclopedic knowledge of rock-and-roll and radio give Klein decades of anecdotes to call upon — from being part of the original "Memphis Mafia" to the list of musical giants who Klein has promoted over the years. Always entertaining, Memphis Sounds is dedicated to the promotion and preservation of Memphis music, something that Klein has been squarely in the middle of for his entire professional life.
- George Klein
Klein has been a fixture in Memphis radio and television since he was an assistant to Dewey Phillips on WHBQ back in the 1950s. Dewey may have been the first disc jockey to play an Elvis record, but George was the second. Beginning his radio career in Osceola, Arkansas, George worked several small stations before landing a job in Memphis at powerhouse WMC, which wanted to experiment with this new rock-and-roll thing.
After a year or so, the station's management told George that this rock-and-roll stuff was just a passing fad and let him go. Fortunately, George's Humes High School classmate, Elvis Presley, hired him on the spot — beginning with a whirlwind year traveling with The King and culminating with a bit part in Jailhouse Rock and, subsequently, seven other Elvis movies.
The friendship between Klein and Presley has become legendary, from George's book, Elvis: My Best Man, to his radio program, "George Klein's Original Elvis Hour," now in its 34th year. His syndicated, "The GK Show," on Sirius XM, broadcast from Graceland, is in its 10th year. Priscilla Presley even asked George to accept the award for Elvis' induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
But this is not about what George did for Elvis; it's what GK has done for the city of Memphis.
I first became aware of George when he was the afternoon disc jockey on WHBQ. He was a rhyming DJ who spoke "hep talk" and could go on a five-minute rhyming patter without missing a beat.
George enjoys the story of how we met when I was 13. Hitchhiking was forbidden in my family ... so, I was standing on the corner with my thumb out when a shiny Cadillac pulled over. It was George. He encouraged me when I told him I had started a little band, and when he found out I was heading for Poplar Tunes Downtown, he drove me the entire way and dropped me off at the front door.
That's the kind of guy George is — generous to a fault. In 1964, GK's radio popularity led to his hosting a weekly television show called Talent Party. He brought in the finest artists around to lip-sync their latest hits, but most importantly, GK hosted every ambitious, young garage band in town. If they didn't have a recording, George sent them to Roland Janes at Sonic Recording to cut songs, which they could then perform on Talent Party.
Being the beneficiary of several of GK's invitations, I can testify that every time we appeared on Talent Party the bookings flooded in. In essence, GK was responsible for the whole '60s garage-band scene which ultimately produced some of Memphis' most notable entertainers. Scores of local musicians owe their start to George's generosity.
Klein also arranged for the first African American to perform live on local TV. Fats Domino not only sang live, he recorded several songs to be broadcast on future shows. After George booked Fats, it was no problem for him to get James Brown, Jackie Wilson, and Sam Cooke. Talent Party was on every Saturday afternoon for 12 years.
I recently spoke with artist manager and music entrepreneur Jerry Williams, George's friend of nearly 70 years. Jerry said the annual George Klein Christmas Charity Show was the longest running charity in Memphis. The first one was held in a wrestling ring at the Mid-South Coliseum. While the grapplers took a breather, GK featured Charlie Rich, The Bill Black Combo, and Ace Cannon. The next year, the show was moved to the National Guard Armory and then to the Fairgrounds to accommodate the crowds. Major artists donated their talents. Donated items were auctioned with a professional auctioneer, who flew to Memphis at his own expense. In fact, everyone worked for free — the bands, the promoters, the building owners, and the concessionaires. One hundred percent of the profits went to local charities.
After 42 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars raised, the yearly gala ended, but the event's "Rainy Day Fund" produced enough revenue to establish the George Klein Broadcasting Scholarship at the University of Memphis. Williams said that he knows of no other person who has dedicated more of his life to the betterment of this city than Klein.
Now it's time to say thank you. Thank you, George, for convincing Elvis that recording at American Studios was a good idea. Thank you, George, for naming the Guilloteens. Thank you, George, for the nights at Fridays or Alfred's where you spun records and donated the proceeds. Thank you, George, for being the first to play Johnny Cash on the radio and for introducing the Beatles at their Memphis show. Thank you, George, for hosting the Memphis Mafia program during Elvis Week every year from 1978 to 2017 and donating the funds to the U of M. Thank you, George, for all the years of entertainment. And thank you, George, for a lifetime of promoting the great music and artists that come from your home town. We love ya' madly.
Randy Haspel writes the Recycled Hippies blog.